18 September, 2009

"Historic verdict" in favour of Tanta labour leaders

The Center for Socialist Studies reports that an appeals court in Tanta ruled yesterday that 7 labour leaders that were fired after a strike in 2007 must be returned to their work. Lawyers describe the verdict - which is final - as a big victory for the workers and the labour movement since it establishes that employers must take their case to an adjudication tribunal or labour court before firing any worker. There is no compulsory mechanism to force the owner to implement the verdict, but the workers believe it will strengthen their negotiating position. Previously, the Saudi investor that bought Tanta Flax and Oils Company from the state in 2005 has promised to return the workers to their jobs if the court ruled in their favor.  Around 1000 workers at the company is currently on strike since the start of the summer.

17 September, 2009

QIZ workers take to the street in Mahalla

Via Mohammed Maree and Hossam el-Hamalawy: A video showing textile workers from the Abou Sebae factory in the QIZ (Qualified Industrial Zone) in Mahalla demonstrating in front of factory owner Ismail Abul Sebae’s house demanding their delayed salaries. The clip shows workers chanting "left, right, we're coming to you Ismail" and "There is no God but God, Ismail is the enemy of God."

According to Mahalla blogger Mohammed Maree 3500 workers took part in the protest. They tried to take to the streets yesterday but were stoped by central security forces and state security officers who promised they would get their salaries in the afternoon. Instead, they entered the factory again only to find a notice that they were obliged to take 15 days unpaid vacation. Today they organized a demonstration that stopped for half an hour outside the factory owners house before continuing to the City Council, paralyzing traffic on the main street al-Bahr until security forces intervened to stop the protest.

Mohammed Maree also reports that a police officer tried to take his camera while he was covering the protest, and threatened to issue another arrest order against him (Mohammed was arrested after the demonstrations in Mahalla on 6 and 7 April 2008, and detained for three months).  

09 September, 2009

Free union leader threatened with up to six months in prison

Jano Charbel reports: "Labor activist Kamal Abu Eita, head of Egypt's only independent labor union, faces charges of disseminating false information and defaming the reputation of the country's state-controlled union leaders." Kamal Abu Eita told al-Masry al-Youm: "I do not wish to tarnish Egypt's image abroad, in fact we are attempting to improve its image abroad. Through our efforts we are proving to the world that Egypt is capable of genuine trade unionism. In this sense I am proud of improving Egypt's image."

08 September, 2009

"Blood Libel" vs Murder in Cold Blood

After the apparently intentional tear-gassing of Al Jazeera correspondent Jackie Rowland by Israeli soldiers, a friend sent me this video as a reminder of the often lethal violence directed by the occupation troops against civilian Palestinians - a routine violence which, in contrast to one speculative article about possible organ theft by Israeli soldiers and the alleged anti-semitism of its author, has not been debated and condemned by Swedish pro-Israeli liberals recently:

"The man in the video, 29 year old Basem Abu Rahme, was evacuated to Ramallah hospital in critical condition, where he died of his injury. When he was shot, Basem was standing east of the Wall, facing the army who was positioned to the west. There was not more than 30 meters between them. The type of gas bomb that killed Basem has a range of 800 meters. It is not visible when it is fired or when it is in the air. At 300 – 400 meters, it explodes internally in order to add velocity. With a plastic or fiberglass head, the canisters resemble shells, not tear gas bombs, and are deadly when not fired into the air."

07 September, 2009

The crisis that never came...

Take a moment and consider these words by American diplomat George Ball, writing in 1979:

"It is unrealistic to believe that Israel, which has maintained a military occupation over 1,200,000 Palestinians for the past 12 years, can continue that role indefinitely. With violence increasing and Arab strength expanding, the attempt to maintain the status quo offers only a sad an bloody future. Nor is it reasonable to believe that the American people will be prepared indefinitely to subsidize this Israeli brand of colonialism so far out of tune with present-day opinion."

So right, yet so wrong... The article, titled "The Coming Crisis Israeli-American Relations," deals with US-Israeli relations from 1948 to 1979 and also touches upon the growth of the pro-Israel lobby, and is still an interesting read 30 years later. Ball describes US-Israeli relations as characterized by "dependence without responsibility." Some excerpts: 

"Over the last 30 years these relations have evolved to the point where Israel is more dependent on the United States than ever, and yet feels itself free to take hard-line positions at variance with American views without fear of anything worse than verbal admonition from Washington."

"/---/ Today Israel is able to continue on its present course only because of continued vast subsidies from the United States. Distasteful as it must be to Israelis, the nation has become a ward— a kind of welfare dependent—of America. The United States is providing annual subsidies out of the public sector that amount to the equivalent of $7,500 a year for every Jewish family..."

"/---/ Why should Israel not pursue its own course, when Israelis have been so long conditioned to expect that America will support their country, no matter how often it disregards American advice and protests and America's own interests, that both sides now accept this extraordinary ritual dancing as quite normal?"

30 years later, in the Obama era, the White House "regrets" the construction of new settlements on the West Bank. The dance continues...

06 September, 2009

Afghanistan Confusion

When NATO and the Taliban are not busy fighting each other, they attack hospitals and tie up employees and family membes. Who were the good guys again?

05 September, 2009

Imposing unions from above to counter those built from below

Al Shourouq reports: Hussein Megawer, head of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, has announced that a new general union - the 24th in Egypt - is being established for employees of tax and customs authorities who previously belonged to the union for bank and insurance employees. The new imposed-from-above-union will supposedly represent the employees of the real estate tax collectors, who founded their own independent union in december 2008. This decision comes as the leader of the free union had been summoned for interrogation by the North Giza prosecutor today after being accused by Megawer of the ETUF of "spreading information that has damaged the reputation of Egypt."

04 September, 2009

Head of Free Union under Attack

Via the Center for Socialist Studies: The head of the independent RETA-union, Kamal abu Eita, will be questioned tomorrow Saturday on charges by Hussein Megawer, head of the official trade union federation, that he has been spreading "false information" that has hurt the reputation of Egypt and its official trade union system. Kamal abu Eita in turn accuses Megawer of acting as a "union police" after failing to control the labour movement, and says that the attacks on him is a sign of weakness.

More links on the free union here and here.

Pic above: Kamal abu Eita during a demonstration outside the trade union federation HQ, november 2007.

03 September, 2009

Importing Efficiency While Neglecting Education

I find this headline, "Egypt keen for Indian expertise to increase labour efficiency,"  slightly ironic considering the recent labour unrest in some QIZ areas and the Indian-owned Shebeen el-Kom spinning mill. It is also very revealing of the economic thinking that prevails within the Egyptian government. 

In recent years there has been significant Indian investments in the Egyptian ready-made garments industry, especially in the QIZ areas. There, as in Shebeen al-Kom, workers from South Asia are often employed as supervisors and technicians, for several reasons. One is that although these foreign sub-managers and technicians earn way more than the unskilled workers in the production line, they often make less than Egyptian workers with equivalent skills. Another is that their loyalty is easier to guarantee, especially when they enter the country on a work-visa tied to a specific company. To some extent it might also be because creating ethnic divisions in the labour force is a good way to prevent unionizing (but in some cases it may also trigger labour unrest by creating a sense of being discriminated among the lower paid Egyptian workers - this happened in Shebeen el-Kom).

As this article points out, Egypt is wasting a lot of value and potential for industrial development by exporting high-quality cotton as a raw material while its textile industry is mostly focused on low-end products made from lower quality cotton. And this report argues that one of the major obstacles to shifting to higher-value production and increasing labour productivity in general is the lack of an educated workforce. 

So what to do about this? Bring in more foreign experts and supervisors - hoping their skills will somehow "trickle down" to illiterate Egyptian workers that work for a pittance - or dealing with the root of the problem and investing in the education of your own people?

The same report identifies another important obstacle to low labour efficiency in the textile sector: poor working conditions, which can lead to "a number of productivity problems, such as worker injuries, production errors, poor quality products, absenteeism, lack of machine maintenance, haphazard inventory systems, and lack of respect and loyalty to the enterprise..."

This is a major factor in the Egyptian ready-made garments sector, where the turnover of the workforce is 8-15 percent per month, which is not surprising considering that wages often range from 150 to 200 pounds a month. Absenteeism amounts to 10-12 percent on a daily basis, equivalent to 100-120 out of 1000 workers in a given factory not showing up to work on any given day. This could be for several legitimate reasons: they may be sick or injured, or they may find occasional employment on the side that offers better pay (as we all know, it's very common for Egyptians to have two jobs).

Conclusion: if you want to improve labour efficiency, you should improve basic education and work conditions. But of course, unless you are a neoliberal or market fundamentalist, those seem like pretty desirable aims in their own right...

Pic above: "inefficient" non-unionized and expendable workers in a QIZ-zone ready garments factory.

Norwegian pension fund drops Israeli company

Norway's finance minister announced today that the Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd has been dropped from the national oil fund due to ethical concerns - namely the company's involvement the construction of the Wall on the West Bank. The minister told the press: "We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law."

Selling shares in a company isn't exactly a strong economic sanction, but this is still a pretty powerful statement coming from a European government official. I eagerly await the response from Avigdor Lieberman and all those pundits who has been making claims like this recently: "behind the humanitarian mask that has been has been assiduously nurtured by the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, are a group of society elites, leftist journalists, clergy, employees of non-governmental agencies (NGOs), and politicans, particularly in Sweden and Norway, who have been regularly demonizing Israel and Jews, using classic themes of antisemitism, which have morphed into anti-Israel motifs." 

Those who make those claims rarely (correction: never) bother to provide any proof, of course, and I strongly suspect most of them could hardly even point out Sweden or Norway on a world map.

Update: (via Ali Esbati): The decision to disinvest in Elbit was apparently taken already on June 30 this year, but made public only today, which should kill all speculation that this is somehow a revenge for Israel's criticism last month of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of novelist Knut Hamsun - a celebrated novelist who won the Nobel prize in the 20's but later became infamous and widely condemned for his Nazi sympathies. 

02 September, 2009

Ben-Gurion and Sinai

I'm currently working (or should be working) on a piece on the Suez Crisis/Tripartite Aggression, which - as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim points out - is not only one of the most famous but also the "best-documented war plot in modern history." The deceit and lies and bizarre worldview that led up to the war is a truly fascinating (and horrifying) piece of history that makes present-day neocon warmongers like Dick Cheney look like amateurs.

The highlights are provided by David Ben-Gurion - prime minister and defense minister of Israel. At the secret conference that produced the Protocol of Sèvres, Ben-Gurion was at his expansionist best. First he floated a proposal to re-organize the entire Middle East, giving the east bank of the Jordan river (Jordan, that is) to Iraq, annexing southern Lebanon to Israel in order to help establish a Maronite Christian state in the rest of the country, and toppling Nasser and replacing him with a pro-western leader that would also be prepared to sign a peace treaty with Israel. 

Later, in a private conversation with his french counterpart, he suggested "tearing" Sinai from Egypt. On 25 October 1956, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: "I told him (the french minister) about the discovery of oil in southern and western Sinai, and that it would be good to tear this peninsula from Egypt, because it did not belong to her, rather it was the English who stole it from the Turks when they believed that Egypt was in their pocket. I suggested laying down a pipeline from Sinai to Haifa to refine the oil..."

Much can be said about Ben-Gurion, but at least he was a man of vision...